Waiting for “Superman”: A Critical Review (Part III)


Deregulating and Privatizing Education

In every corner of life where deregulation and privatization has been applied, it has been an unqualified disaster for the vast majority of families and communities, both in the United States and throughout the world. And, yet, Guggenheim and his authorities want us to believe that educational policy will prove to be the exception to the rule.

But, let us be clear: deregulation and privatization have not been an unqualified disaster for all. Many of us (and that includes me and most of my acquaintances), have benefited from deregulation and privatization. While increases in our wages and benefits have dramatically slowed or flattened over the past thirty years, they have not slowed or flattened anywhere near as dramatically as have the bottom ninety percent of the population. Their loss, however, spells my gain.

Yes, revenues and expenditures on (non-defense, non-health care related) public institutions have declined dramatically over the past thirty years. That means that our public schools, libraries, roads, public transportation, and parks must do with much less than they once did. For families who depend on these public facilities—not me or my friends—this is unfortunate. For the remaining ten percent—me and my friends—this means that we enjoy the privilege of institutions and processes uncluttered by the exceptional needs, interests, and patterns of use common to the other ninety percent. Of course, we have to pay for this privilege. But, thanks to deregulation and privatization, which have hurt them more than they have hurt us, we can afford to pay the bill.

Sure, the teachers in the charter schools and private schools where we send our children are among those hurt by this revolution. But, just as with our house cleaners, gardeners, dry cleaners, food preparation specialists, and nannies, we can also clearly see in the personal sacrifices these teachers and their families are willing to make on behalf of us and our children, that they are much better suited to serving me and my family’s educational needs than the selfish teachers and union bosses who believe that they also have a right to a living wage, to quality health care or job security, or to spending quality time with their own families.

Guggenheim’s response to these families is, essentially, tough luck. Times have changed. Immediately after World War II, our public schools were ready to prepare workers for a variety of blue collar, low tech, low skill jobs, while sending a small handful off to college. Today, by contrast, a college education is essential; and, yet, our public schools have not changed with the times. To help them change, we must get big government and big labor off our backs and restore our schools to the hands of those who have our children’s best interests at heart.

We know how this works for children, such as our own, who enjoy parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends who have the interest, energy and time to fight for and ensure good learning outcomes. But, how does this work for children who, for whatever reason, are not surrounded by such adults who will fight on their behalf? How does undermining public institutions, regulations, and public oversight help these children? How does fighting against the job security, living wages, and meaningful benefits enjoyed uniquely by organized workers in inner cities help children born into union households?

Waiting for “Superman”: A Critical Review (Part II)


The Convenient Lie

So, why did experts shower an admittedly imperfect “Inconvenient Truth” with praise, but shower scorn on the wildly popular “Waiting for ‘Superman’”? The reason, I think, is that while an imperfect “Inconvenient Truth” actually did expose an inconvenient truth, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” actually promoted a convenient lie. It is a lie because a single well-intentioned, earnest, heart-felt and heart-wrenching documentary cannot overturn over a century of independent, peer-reviewed research showing that the “bad teacher/good teacher” model is both wrong-headed and destructive. It is convenient because it is addressed to a generation of care-givers who are only all too eager to believe that big, tax-and-spend, over-regulating, rule-bound, invasive government in alliance with selfish teachers and the big boss union officials and machine democrat politicians who represent them are bad news in general, but especially bad news for our kids.

The tragedy is that there was nothing to prevent Guggenheim from telling a less convenient, but more truthful story; nothing, that is, except that this less convenient story would have risked praise from experts, but skepticism from parents who desperately want to believe and, in fact, need to believe that the single-most important factor in the success or failure of their children’s education is the school teacher assigned to their child.

In fact, Guggenheim actually did tell this less convenient truth, but then he masterfully twisted it to fit the tastes and prejudices of his anticipated audience. On nearly every frame of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” Guggenheim vividly displays the central role played in the educational lives of children by a broad circle of adults (most of whom were not educators) who enjoy the interest, energy, and time necessary to care for these children. Scene by scene, frame for frame, Guggenheim documents the aunts, uncles, grandparents, as well as mothers and fathers whose interest, energy, and time commitment proves to be critical for their child’s educational success.

The interest, energy, and time commitment of these adults corresponds both with expert research and with our own experience. My friends who have elected to send their children to private schools, enroll them in charter schools, or who have decided to home school their children display the same interest, energy, and time commitment as the parents, grandparents, aunts, teachers, administrators, superintendents, and politicians featured in Guggenheim’s documentary. They display the same interest, energy, and time commitment as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, administrators, superintendents and politicians active in my own children’s public school. Which could have led Guggenheim to a fairly straightforward, well-documented, conclusion: in fact, the “good teacher/bad teacher” model is deeply flawed. It takes a village.

So, what does Guggenheim do with this village? He either discounts it or he trashes it. He discounts the village by proposing—against virtually all peer-reviewed research—that it is the school (and, specifically, the teacher) that creates the village, not the reverse. And he trashes the village by suggesting, over and over again, that the real impediments to quality education and learning are the very processes and structures that compose our public life together; in short, the village itself. The solutions Guggenheim and his authorities propose to our problems, by contrast, are nearly all dependent on removing these public or quasi-public impediments and replacing them with private, individual, local mechanisms, institutions, and initiatives. If the fault of our educational system lies with the bad teacher, then we need to find ways of getting good teachers into class rooms. Since public institutions and processes have failed to get good teachers into class rooms, we need to dramatically restrict the roles that public institutions and processes play in vetting, selecting, and placing teachers.

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” So declared President Ronald Reagan, the father of this revolution, thirty years ago.

Waiting For "Superman": A Critical Review (Part I)


Waiting For “Superman” | Trailer & Official Movie Site | Pledge Now

Waiting for “Superman”: A Critical Review

I should like this documentary. Davis Guggenheim and Billy Kimball have my number. As a fifty-something year old post-Watergate, politically progressive “but-not-liberal” parent, I was too young to have participated in the civil rights movement, to have served in the Vietnam War, or to have voted for a democratic presidential candidate (I cast my first vote for Jimmy Carter) who did not share his republican opponent’s hostility toward big government, big labor, and big corporate taxes and regulation. I believe in the entrepreneurial spirit championed in Guggenheim’s most recent documentary and even served a brief stint for a Silicon Valley start-up. All indicators are that I should be in favor of cutting through the red tape, blasting through the tangle of big government rules and regulations, exposing the politicians and labor bosses for the charlatans they truly are, and getting on with the mission of educating our children. So, why didn’t I like this documentary?

Surely one reason may be that both my children attend a highly successful, ethnically, socially and economically diverse public elementary school with great teachers, great special needs programs, and a great principal. Yet my wife and I have several friends, perhaps the majority of our friends, who are sending their kids to private schools, or to charter schools, or who have elected to home school their children, and who would never dream of sending their children to this award-winning school.

Another reason may be that I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the son and the brother of two sisters who are also AFT members, and the husband of a partner who for more than twenty years has been actively involved in the organized labor movement. Yet, many of our friends who have decided to home school their children or send their children to private schools enjoy comparable labor union credentials. So, why didn’t I like this documentary?

Rules of the blogosphere dictate that I break my answer to this question down into easy blogobites. Here, in part one, I want to say a word about what I liked about this documentary; in part two, “The Convenient Lie,” I identify why Guggenheim told the story he did, rather than the story he should have; in part three, “Deregulating and Privatizing Education,” I explain why charter schools may be the answer, but not for other parent’s children; in part four, “Between Harlem and Redwood City,” I focus in on the conceptual fallacy upon Guggenheim builds his story; and, in part five, “Superintendent Rhee’s Offer,” I explain why the representatives of Washington, DC’s organized teachers could not accept Superintendent Rhee’s apparently generous offer.

But, before explaining what is wrong with “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” let me first say what I liked about this documentary. What I liked most about this documentary is how it showed that where adults (parents, relatives, educators, politicians) take a keen and active interest in the welfare of children, those children are more likely to succeed than where adults—for whatever reason—fail to take a keen and active interest in their welfare. Thus, whereas in Guggenheim’s other documentary on education, “The First Year” (1999), he focused almost exclusively on teachers, in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” (2010) he focuses on a much broader circle of adults—parents, grandparents, school superintendents, entrepreneurs, administrators, activists, policy makers, scholars, and educators—all of whom share a passion for educating young people.

And, had Guggenheim run with this theme, it could have been the educational policy equivalent to his other award winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth” (2007), which exposed the duplicity of the energy industry and its “climate change deniers,” while explaining in clear, simple, language why the climate of the world is at risk. “An Inconvenient Truth” was not a perfect documentary. Yet it earned the critical acclaim of nearly all climate scientists throughout the world. Not so “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which has, at best, earned begrudging recognition, but more often skepticism and open scorn from experts in the field. This, in spite of a groundswell of exuberant support shown for the film by many highly educated, progressive, influential, reasonably well-to-do parents, this one included.